A Funny Thing Happened: A History of Western Comedy (55+)

Why do we laugh at comedies? What’s so funny about them? Do we learn from comedies, or are they merely entertaining diversions?

We’ll trace the development of Western comedy tradition from the raucous “Old Comedy” of the ancient Greeks and the romantic “New Comedy” of the ancient Romans; through Shakespeare, Molière, Wilde and Shaw; to the anarchic antics of the Marx Brothers. Making ample use of video resources, we’ll explore how plots recur throughout the ages, as do comic characters, themes and language, giving us a sense of how tradition has continued to thrive. Find out what our wonderful Western comedies have in common, and how they educate us and make us laugh at the same time.

Note: Offered in fall 2007 as A Funny Thing Happened…: A Brief History of Western Comedy.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

What will I learn?

Week 1: Comic theory

We meet homo ridens, or the laughing man: what is so funny, why do we laugh and what makes up the genre of comedy (its structure, content and social value).

Week 2: Comedy in ancient times

We look at zany Greek “old comedy” and romantic Roman “new comedy.” We will study Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and compare it to the Marx Brothers, and the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence.

Week 3: Shakespearean comedy

We examine Shakespeare’s comedy from beginning (Two Gentlemen of Verona, Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew) to end (Twelfth Night, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing).

Week 4: French classical comedy

We spend time with Moliére’s Tartuffe, The Hypochondriac and The Bourgeois Gentleman.

Week 5: English Victorian comedy

We enjoy Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest) and Gilbert and Sullivan (HMS Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance).

Week 6: Modern comedy

We consider G.B. Shaw’s Pygmalion and the black comedy of Samuel Beckett.

How will I learn?

  • Lectures
  • Discussion (may vary from class to class)
  • Papers (applicable only to certificate students)

How will I be evaluated?

For certificate students only:

Your instructor will evaluate you based on an essay, which you will complete at the end of the course. You will receive a grade of “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory.”

Textbooks and learning materials

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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